There was only one substantive item on the agenda for this meeting: ‘Implications of the European referendum result’. Just over a fortnight after the vote, it had seemed the best use of the meeting time to give detailed consideration to the implications of the decision. Undoubtedly, the ‘Leave’ vote was – and is – a hugely important issue for the party and for Wales but it seemed artificial to exclude all other topics, especially when the party was in the midst of a leadership crisis.
The First Minister, Carwyn Jones, explained the situation. The Welsh Government had already sent out a team to Brussels, for exploratory talks with EU officials, to see what side deals, if any, could be struck for Wales. Nobody yet seemed to know what was likely to happen. Wales could not depend on the support of Scotland because they are moving toward a position of independence. This would not be a viable option for Wales, even if it were politically desirable, as we don’t have the same economic resources as the Scots.
It is vital, Carwyn said, that Wales should retain access to the single market; that was certainly the view of major firms based in the UK, such as TATA, who do not want to pay a 5% tariff on their products – but the single market means free movement of labour which the ‘Brexit’ decision implies most voters don’t want.
Departure from the EU could cost Wales some £650 million a year. The Welsh Government cannot guarantee funding for the big projects promised in its recent election if they take more than two years to complete. The projects affected could include the City Deal, the Metro and the apprenticeship scheme. The funding provided to Wales under the Barnett Formula would prove inadequate compared to the support currently available from EU Structural Funds. Once we had left the EU, we would not be able to trust the Tories to make up the difference. Therefore the Welsh Government needs to press ahead with seeking more devolved powers from Westminster.
Carwyn acknowledged that some people were raising the question of a second referendum. He certainly felt that all four UK parliaments would have to ratify the final deal, once we know what it looks like. We would have to reject it within the next twelve months if it is unacceptable. Clearly the public have been lied to. We need to start campaigning for greater social justice and the need to improve workers’ rights, to combat racism and end exploitation of workers especially as about 150,000 jobs in Wales are dependent on the EU.
Derek Vaughan MEP likened this period to a state of bereavement. The outcome was the result of a complex mixture of factors such as the influence of the right wing media, which – together with pro-Brexit MPs – had told lies and played the race card, plus the failure of Labour MPs to talk enough about immigration issues. For example Labour did not stress the fact that there are a similar number of UK citizens living in the EU as there are immigrants living in this country. The Tory Lobbying Act had also played its part by gagging charities and trade unions from speaking out on inequality matters prior to the 2015 election. It left the poor in our society feeling they had nothing to lose if we left the EU.
As a country, we need to change the way we deal with the EU but the EU is already fed up with the UK. The current situation has left us with the pound dropping in value, an estimated 750,000 jobs disappearing and businesses losing confidence in investing in the UK. In Wales, we need to ensure that EU funding for our major projects is spent by 2018 when the UK might leave the EU. Uncertainty about when Article 50 will be invoked was discussed. As for a second referendum, it may be possible to have one, as circumstances change and the final deal is shown to the people, whose views may change when they realise that they were lied to.
The discussion was then opened up to the rest of the meeting and a number of points were raised:
A question was raised as to how far we could currently quantify the likely impact of Brexit. Carwyn responded that 150,000 jobs in Wales are dependent on access to the single market and funding of apprenticeships would certainly suffer if EU funding were not replaced but Derek explained that full data on projects benefiting from the current funding programme was not yet fully available.
Concern was expressed about the damaging role that social media played in circulating racist comments. The Labour Party needs to educate its supporters against harbouring such ideas. For example in launching their local council election campaign, Newport Council had recently passed a resolution expressing pride in being a diverse city.
Chris argued that Labour needed to make the case for social justice and solidarity in response to the divisive and racist ideas of the right and to tackle the underlying causes of social division by, for example, repealing the Tory anti-union laws in order to allow unions more effectively to challenge unscrupulous employers who played off migrant and indigenous workers. Other WEC members said that we should point out that migrant workers often did the jobs that indigenous workers were reluctant to undertake and that Labour should campaign for a Living Wage and for more robust trade union recognition, as well as for the retention of the employment rights won through the EU, which would now be under threat.
It was agreed to send a letter of solidarity from the WEC, to a) Tudor Evans, Leader of Plymouth Labour Party, concerning the defacing by local fascists, of Michael Foot’s memorial in the city and b) to Jo Cox’s family; and to support a proposed remembrance day commemoration for those who had gone from Wales to fight fascism in Spain in the International Brigades.
Darren argued that Labour had failed to make a sufficiently convincing case for the EU over recent years and, in particular, had been too reluctant to acknowledge the neo-liberal drift of EU policy over the last twenty years and to set out a credible reform agenda. He pointed out that, despite the criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn’s role in the ‘Remain’ campaign by the MPs who had challenged his leadership in recent weeks, some 63% of those who had backed Labour in the general election had voted ‘Remain’ – almost the same percentage as for SNP voters, for which Nichola Sturgeon had been lauded. Another CLPs rep picked up the point about the divisions opening up in the PLP and the potential damage that could be done to Labour’s ability to campaign on issues like Europe. She observed that the party had secured considerable additional revenue as a result of the large increase in membership over the last year and proposed the WEC take a position that more of this money should go directly to branches to assist their campaigning. The chair advised her, however, that we could not vote on this as it was not within the competency of the WEC.
Paul Flynn MP, attending his first WEC meeting since taking over as Shadow Welsh Secretary, reported on the very unpleasant atmosphere in the House of Commons and said that some Labour MPs were behaving unprofessionally. Such public disunity was having an adverse effect on the standing of our party. Paul reminded the committee that he had not supported Ed Miliband in the 2010 leadership election but did not criticise him while in office, unlike the current situation where some Labour MPs seemed to think it was time for a free-for-all against Jeremy Corbyn. This point was echoed by other Committee members.
Following the conclusion of the EU debate, the minutes of previous meetings were circulated, including those of the Party Development Board (PDB), a sub-committee of the WEC. Darren asked when the PDB would next be subject to election and it was agreed that this would be done at the next meeting.